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I’ve been thinking about the concept of “the duo” a lot recently.
Many of the companies I’m involved in have either two co-founders or two partners who partner up early in the life of the business. Examples of founding partners including Andrei and Peter (Kato.im), Keith and Jeff (BigDoor), James and Eric (Fitbit), and Matthew and Cashman (Yesware). Of course there are many other famous founding duos like Steve and Steve (Apple), Jerry and Dave (Yahoo!), Larry and Sergey (Google), and Bill and Paul (Microsoft). My first company (Feld Technologies) had a duo (me and Dave) and the company that bought Feld Technologies did also – Jerry and Len (AmeriData).
Now, these duos are not the leadership team. But there is a special magic relationship between the duo. I like to think about it like the final fight scene from Mr. and Mrs. Smith where Brad and Angelina are back to back, spinning around in circles, doing damage to the enemy.
This is not just “I’ve got your back, you’ve got my back.” It’s “we are in this together. All in. For keeps.”
It’s just like my relationship with Amy. We are both all in. It’s so powerful – in good times and in bad times.
I learned a very profound thing from my partner Dave Jilk at Feld Technologies 25 years ago. I have been practicing, and getting better at it, ever since. It’s a core part of the way I work with people and I have Dave to thank for it.
First, some context. Feld Technologies was my first company. Dave and I started it in 1987. We hired, then fired, a bunch of part time people and then just worked together – the two of us – for the next 18 months until we hired our first employee (Shawn Broderick). We were cash flow positive every month because we never raised any outside money. We both did everything, working very closely together. As the company grew, we partitioned a lot of things – I became the sales guy – generating much of our new business. Dave became the software guy, managing the team and getting the work done. But we continued to work closely together – he sold plenty of business and I did plenty of work, including doing all the network integration work for our clients, and occasionally managed something.
We were both young and very inexperienced so we learned a lot together, mostly by screwing things up and then fixing them. Sometimes we had a lot of fun, sometimes we were under tremendous stress, and every now and then one of us was miserable. We were (and continue to be) best friends so when one of us was very unhappy, the other could pick up on the vibe quickly and we talked about it.
I remember a stretch of time where I could tell that Dave was really aggravated with me. This wasn’t uncommon – our love and respect included plenty of “moments” as we were both developing into real adults. But this aggravation seemed deeper and didn’t surface in an obvious way.
I remember taking Dave out to dinner at a sushi place called Nara around the corner from our office at 260 Franklin Street in Boston. I can picture how the night felt – dark and empty with plenty of downtown Boston ambient noise. We went to Nara a lot – this was way before sushi became trendy and it was one of the few places in Boston, located a few blocks away from our office. They had excellent huge bottles of cold beer and amazing fish. And it was always quiet and there was always a booth open.
We sat down, got our beers, and I started with the issue, as I often do.
I asked, “Dave, what’s bugging you so much right now.”
“Why? What am I doing that’s bugging you.”
“Working with you is like reading the last page of a novel first.”
I sat nursing my beer for a quiet, long minute pondering this. I mentally read the last page of a novel and thought I knew what Dave meant. Eventually Dave broke the silence.
“When I bring an issue to you, you immediately tell me the answer. 99% of the time you are correct. So I then go spend all of my time looking for a solution that is better that yours. But I only find it 1% of the time. This is incredibly unsatisfying to me.”
I think he may have added something like “fucking demotivating” but by this point I totally groked it. We had an awesome dinner discussing what over the last 25 years we have regularly referred to as “the last page in the book problem.”
Today, I try hard not to start by telling the answer immediately. The CEOs and entrepreneurs I work with need to learn how to get to the answer. And their answer, in many cases, will be better than mine since I don’t have enough context or information to be right 99% of the time like I did when I was the president of Feld Technologies. But even more importantly, a great CEO knows this also. His team doesn’t want to always hear the answer first. Sometimes they do, or need to, but often they want to be able to talk openly, collect data, and come to it over time.
This brief moment has had a profound impact on how I work. While I despise Mr. Socrates (the guy who just asks question after question after question and never expresses a point of view) and don’t emulate him, I definitely ask more “guided questions” when presented with a problem. I tell more stories to try to give examples of how others have solved the problem. And occasionally, when I realize the CEO is asking for the answer (e.g. when Bart Lorang, in the middle of a board meeting, says “Brad, just tell me the fucking answer – I know you know it.”) I tell the answer. But in the back of my mind I always remember that part of learning the answer is figuring out how to find it.
I was fired from my first two jobs. Here’s the story of one of them, which first appeared as part of LinkedIn’s My First Job content package.
“You’re fired.” Those were the last two words I heard from my boss after working for six months at Potatoes, Etc., my first real job. I smirked, immaturely threw my apron at her (I was 15 years old after all), and slammed the door on my way out.
My final three words, preceding hers, were “you’re a bitch.” In hindsight, her response was predictable.
I remember riding my bike home the three miles from Prestonwood Mall where I worked. I had no idea what I was going to tell my parents, but I decided I’d just tell them what happened and see where the chips landed. I felt ashamed of myself for being so disrespectful to my boss, even though she had constantly demeaned me, and all the other people that worked at Potatoes, Etc. I didn’t have any respect for her, but my parents had taught me better and I was proud of my ability to suck it up and not lose my temper.
Potatoes, Etc. was one of those local fast food restaurants in a giant shopping mall from the 1980s. Remember Fast Times at Ridgemont High? Yup – that was us, except Potatoes (as we liked to call it) was staffed by the “honors kids.” I think the Greek souvlaki place was staffed by the jocks and the Corn Dog place was staffed by the stoners, but it all blurs together 30 years later.
In hindsight, the Potatoes, Etc. supply chain was pretty cool. Idaho spuds appeared magically in 50 pounds boxes and ended up in a dank, gross storeroom. Each shift, one person was responsible for getting them, cleaning them, putting them on trays, covering them with industrial grade salad dressing, and racking the trays. Another person was responsible for putting them in the convection oven and making sure there were enough potatoes cooking at all times to handle the spikes in demand. Another person manned “the bar” – cutting open the potatoes and filling them with whatever goop and toppings the customer ordered. And the last person worked the cash register. After we closed, we were all responsible for cleaning up.
Since we were honors kids, we had a lot of fun with the supply chain. We did a good job of load optimization. We figured out process improvements to cut, fill, and serve the potatoes. We ran a parallel process on cleaning and closing up, so we could be done in ten minutes. We were never, ever short on cash.
Our boss was a young woman – probably in her early 20s. I remember the smell of smoke and alcohol on her breath. I remember Saturday morning shifts where she would come in at 1pm, clearly hung over. She liked to yell at us. Her favorite form of managerial shame was to call someone into the back “room” (there was no door) and dress them down randomly so everyone in the food court could hear.
We were good kids. It took a lot to get a rise out of us. Sure – we’d complain to each other about her, but we bonded together and did a good job regardless of her antics. Every now and then she’d do something that she thought was motivating, like bring a case of beer into the back of the store and offer up cans to us (we always declined – remember, we were good kids). But I can’t remember a single time she praised us – or at least me – for anything.
I had been racking potatoes all day on the day I got fired. I was cranky – I wanted to work up front but today wasn’t my day. I was tired – lifting 50 pounds of potatoes and washing them one by one is a drag. And I was bored out of my mind.
My boss probably noticed I was in a bad mood. A kind word from her would have made all the difference in the world. Instead, she came over to the full rack of potatoes, started pulling them off the racks, and without even looking at me dumped them one by one in the sink.
“You suck at washing potatoes.”
“You’re a bitch.”
My parents were gentle with me. They made sure I understood the lessons from the experience, which included the power of respect and not losing your temper with a superior.
But most importantly this was a key moment that I think back to whenever I consider motivation. My boss never did anything to create a context in which we were motivated. It wouldn’t have taken much. And, if she had, respect – and motivation – would have followed. At 15, I learned what it was like to be on the receiving end of a boss who had no idea how to create an environment in which the people that worked for her were motivated. I’ve carried that experience, and the resulting insight, to every subsequent thing I’ve been involved in.
As Amy and I get to the end of Season 2 of Battlestar Galactica, I’m noticing more and more management and leadership lessons. Oh – and it’s awesome SciFi.
In my experience, it’s a challenge for CEOs and management teams to get focused on a small set of numbers that drive behavior. I talked about this in my post Three Magic Numbers. I regularly suggest that you should only have three numbers that you focus on daily – that reflect “what is going on right now in the business.”
You should be able to discern what is going on from the daily trend of these numbers. Sure – you’ll look at plenty of other numbers, but these are the three you focus on every day. You don’t need fancy tech for this – just a white board.
If you are a BSG fan, you’ll recall the white board behind President Roslin’s desk. It has one number on it. The number of survivors alive at that moment. This number started showing up in the opening credits some time in Season 2, and after a few episodes I noticed it changing each time in the credits, often based on what had happened in the previous episode.
This is BSG’s KPI. The number of humans alive. Right now.
When I reflect on this KPI, I realize it drives all the behavior on BSG. The easy behavior to focus on is keeping the number from decreasing. But as Gauis eloquently states late in Season 2, if the trend line continues, based on a complex regression analysis he’s done, the human species will be extinct in 18 years. Soon after, Admiral Adama reminds Roslin that the number generally just goes down, and that Roslin had said early on that if the human species is to survive, the colony needs to start “making babies.”
This is an obvious set up for a much more complex social issue – that of pro-life vs. pro-choice. But obvious set up aside, Adama is focusing on the KPI and reminding Roslin that the goal is for it go up, as well as not go down. It turns out there is a lot of richness in the number.
In my world, as companies grow, I notice a proliferation of KPIs being tracked. On a periodic basis, I encourage CEOs to keep paying attention to all the numbers, but surface – on a daily basis – the three magic numbers that drive their business.
Do you know your three magic numbers?
I’m doing a one hour CEO roundtable on an “about weekly basis” with each of the Techstars classes. Yesterday I did a face to face with the Techstars Boulder CEOs (they are across the hall from my office) and then I did my meetings with the Techstars Chicago CEOs and the Kaplan EdTech Accelerator CEOs by video conference.
This is a new experiment for me. I’m trying a different approach to mentoring the Techstars teams this year. I’m still a lead mentor for two of the Boulder teams (Kato and SnowShoe) but for all the other programs, including Boulder, I’m trying a weekly one hour CEO only session.
One of my big goals is to generate more peer interaction between the CEOs of the various companies. We do this aggressively within the Foundry Group portfolio and it’s one of the really powerful things about Techstars. But historically it’s been adhoc and random, rather than in an organized way. This is an effort to get the CEOs to really bond with every one of the other CEOs during the program.
So far the experiment is working great from my perspective. I’m stunned by the depth of the conversation and I can see the relationship dynamics being very broad as well as intellectually and emotionally intense.
Each of the three meetings yesterday were totally different, as Techstars Boulder is in week 8, Techstars Chicago is in week 4, and Kaplan EdTech is in week 2. As I was taking a shower this morning, I kept thinking about the rant I went on during the last 10 minutes of the meeting with the Techstars Chicago CEOs.
By week 4, a team is deep in things. The stress is showing. Everyone is tired and working at their max capacity. They’ve been exposed to a wide range of mentors and lots of conflicting data. Stuff is breaking all the time. Everything is uncomfortable and – in some cases – distressing.
In reaction to a particular conversation, I strung together quotes from three of my favorite books about entrepreneurship. The rant went as follows:
- “It’s not that I don’t suffer, it’s that I know the unimportance of suffering.” – John Galt in Atlas Shrugged
- “Fear is the mind-killer.” - the Bene Gesserit is Dune
- “Anxiety, the next gumption trap, is sort of the opposite of ego. You’re so sure you’ll do everything wrong you’re afraid to do anything at all.” – Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
I used the quotes as the anchors on a longer rant, but I did it extemporaneously. I hadn’t realized how nicely these quotes fit together until this particular moment, prompted by the particular situation. In hindsight, the only quote I forgot was my favorite of all time – “Do or do not, there is no try.” – Yoda.
And – it reminded me that three books should be on every Startup CEO’s reading list along with Matt Blumberg’s new book, Startup CEO.